Space Arms Race Heats Up Overnight
The USS Lake Erie launches a Standard Missile-3 at a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph over the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 20, 2008.
Credit: Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy's successful missile hit and apparent destruction of a defunct spy satellite represents a major step forward in the space arms race in the eyes of some analysts. Others are not so sure.

One expert said last night's hit was not an example of a real missile-defense system, targeting an unusually low satellite that was essentially a sitting duck with a missile that is not the nation's top-of-the line for such tasks.

Some say tensions with Russia and China will increase following the U.S. anti-satellite demonstration, as both nations had stated their opposition to the attempt. Others argue the United States took necessary measures to ensure geopolitical stability and extend its military dominance.

"This is obviously being hailed as a victory both politically, because the [U.S.] administration can claim there was no loss of life, and technically because it worked," said Theresa Hitchens, Center for Defense Information director. "It helped the [U.S.] Navy demonstrate the capabilities of its missile defense system."

Last night at approximately 10:26 p.m. EST, a U.S. Navy AEGIS warship, the USS Lake Erie, launched a Standard Missile-3, which intercepted the defunct spy satellite USA-193, also known as NROL-21, over the Pacific Ocean. Defense Department officials say they think the missile successfully hit the satellite's hydrazine tank, a potential hazard that was cited as the reason for the shootdown.

Space arms race

The exercise has severe implications, experts say, as it opens up a once-virgin territory — space — for international weaponization. The potential for a space arms race has some worried.?

"It was an unfortunate choice by the United States that seems to have been unnecessary. The fact is that satellites fall from space all the time and the risk of it was fairly minimal," said Stephen Young, the senior analyst in Washington, D.C., for the Union of Concerned Scientist's Global Security Program. "But the implications of the satellite shootdown could be very severe. We're talking about a potential arms race in space."

"It's a step backward in terms of weaponization of space because whatever the U.S. government's official stance is, the world perception is that this was an ASAT test," said Phil Smith, assistant director for Research and Planning for the Secure World Foundation. "Perception is everything as they say in politics. It's perceived not only in that way but that the U.S. is being somewhat hypocritical when it condemned the Chinese launch and of course they went ahead and did something that is going to be perceived as being just about the same."

China has already demonstrated its anti-satellite capabilities, with Russia indicating ASAT abilities in the 1980s. "The U.S. will be in a worse position overall if other countries decide they also need the ability to shoot down satellites," Young said.

The China question

Experts have also suggested the U.S. attempt could legitimize China's anti-satellite demonstration that took place a year ago, and open the doors for other nations such as India or Iran to do their own tests.

"Since China did their ASAT [anti-satellite] test and got into political hot water, there's been debate in China about whether to go forward," Hitchens said. "This would seem to give PLA [People's Liberation Army] hardliners more ammunition for their argument, and also gives other nations the signal that it's okay if you test this technology if it's done safely."

Another expert saw China's internal debate differently, even as China asked for more information about the U.S. satellite shootdown.

"Their concern is not whether they should continue with their military space program," said Everett Dolman, a professor of comparative military studies at Maxwell Air Force Base.

Dolman added that much of the international outcry over China's test was over the large debris field left in orbit by the Chinese satellite's destruction, and so the Chinese were likely discussing how to prevent such international condemnation in future tests. He sees the continuing weaponization of space as almost a certainty, particularly as the U.S. and China continue jockeying to maintain and increase their global power.

"If there is going to be a big conflict between the U.S. and China, it's likely the first salvoes will be in space because the security needs of the U.S. and China are incompatible there," Dolman said.

Regardless of differences in opinion, most agreed that the U.S. anti-satellite demonstration sends a political message for China and Russia.

"[The U.S.] certainly did a good job in couching it in safety terms, which makes it harder to attack outright," Young said, "but it seems fairly clear that the Chinese and the Russians got the message: 'This is something we can do.'"

Necessary step?

At least one expert saw the demonstration as a crucial step by the U.S. to ensure its military and political dominance if a space arms race becomes inevitable.

"This was in my view a very positive move by the U.S. for stability," said Dolman. "The fact that you're using a Navy ship and a fairly standard weapon to do this is really ratcheting up the technology curve."

The shootdown certainly seems to confirm U.S. technological prowess. The interceptor missile "was never designed to engage a satellite," according to Raytheon Missile Systems, adding that its success "demonstrates the capability of the SM-3 missile to meet a unique situation and perform beyond its intended purpose."

Dolman observed that the U.S., China and Russia will all try to control space in the near-future, but that developing anti-satellite and other weapons won't necessarily lead to a catastrophic war because of the relatively bloodless nature of space conflict.

"No one's ready for control of space yet, although they'd all like to have that capability," Dolman said.

The Secure World Foundation views the shootdown as an opportunity for the U.S. government to spearhead efforts for an international forum dealing with space-traffic management and weaponization issues.

"We need to deal with this globally, because that satellite could've been a different satellite, for example, belonging to a different country," Smith said. "If it was characterized as a threat and we had the ability to shoot it down and nobody else did then that becomes an international issue that needs to be dealt with as transparently as possible."

But so far, the U.S. government has come up a bit short on transparency and international cooperation.

"One fundamental truth is that this administration has demonstrated clearly a preference for unilateral and military action over international and cooperative actions," Young said. "We don't know how the decision was made in the Bush administration but the fact that early on they were talking about fairly modest risk and then suddenly 'we're going to shoot it down' ... there was no indication at all that they were headed that way. It seems to the outside observer, hey this would be fun. Let's go shoot something down."

Old news?

John Pike, a  military and security analyst who runs the highly regarded website Global Security.org, believes the shootdown has no implications regarding the space arms race.

"In my view it means nothing," Pike said. "it has no larger implications."

Pike's rationale is that the U.S. has demonstrated its anti-satellite capabilities beginning in about 1985 and the missile used in the shot last night doesn't have the ability for a real missile-defense system.

"The United States has got other better ways of shooting down satellites. This is not a very good ASAT interceptor," Pike told SPACE.com. The missile reached about 150 miles (241 km). "No self-respecting satellite is ever going to find itself that low, because you're not going to stay in orbit that long. Typically, satellites reside at an altitude of about 300 - 400 miles (483 ? 644 km) in order to remain in orbit without extra boosts.

In addition, officials have said the resulting debris from the obliterated satellite appears to be too small to cause any damage on Earth. The destroyed satellite's debris was spotted in the sky by some West Coast observers.

Pike added that the U.S. will continue with missile defense testing. "The Americans are going to continue conducting exo-atmospheric ballistic-missile defense tests several times a year," Pike said. "The Americans, I believe, have a covert unacknowledged space-based anti-missile system that they may start testing in about five years."